The New Futurists

Article excerpt

Futures research has become a tool for governments and businesses to identify and study emerging trends and imagine the range of scenarios that they may produce.

Futurist Graham T.T. Molitor estimates that he buys roughly 1,000 books a year to add to the 30,000 volumes filling the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves of his personal library in his Potomac, Md., home. In addition, the man whose professional life is taken up with thinking about tomorrow says he scans some 60 publications a day, meticulously reading, clipping and cataloging hundreds of articles to be filed in an ever-expanding cache of knowledge in his basement. Forecasts of the future largely are based on our understanding of today's trends. "For a person who is an inveterate researcher, it is as much fun as it is hard work" he says.

A conversation with Molitor ranges from bonsai trees to the Information Age, from economic engines to laws against chewing gum in Singapore. He recently edited the Encyclopedia of the Future (Macmillan, 1999). As an author he has seven books under way, including a voluminous chronology of the past, in an attempt to create a record of the knowledge he has compiled during four decades spent advising hundreds of Fortune 500 companies, governments and institutions on how the world might change the next day, the next decade, even the next millennium, and how to make the most of it. "In order to have this wide-ranging thinking, a person needs to know about everything from potholes to black holes" says Molitor. "You have to be widely read and very current."

The president and founder of Public Policy Forecasting Inc., Molitor is a veteran in the emerging field known as, well, a variety of things. According to the World Futures Society (WFS), an international association of people interested in how social and technological developments are shaping the future, this growing field might be called futures research, futures studies, futurism, futuristics, futurology, conjecture or futures analysis. And it overlaps the methods and concerns of other fields including strategic forecasting, issues management, trend analysis, impact assessment and long-range planning.

Futurists might work at academic institutions, consulting firms or hold an office within a company under any number of titles. In any case, their skills at forecasting probable changes in, say, warcraft or consumer demand, through a combination of art and science, are more coveted than ever, experts say. An unprecedented variety of institutions is relying on futurists to document current trends, study how they interact and imagine the range of scenarios they might produce. The theory goes that, armed with careful thinking about all that the future might hold, individuals and organizations will be better able to respond to the increasingly rapid changes of the world they live, work and play within.

How far ahead can futures research look and just what can it reveal? Most professional futures researchers punctuate their statements with plenty of "if/then" qualifiers. As a statement issued by WFS explains, "Futurists know better than most people that the future is not predictable.... Knowing the possibilities of the future -- that is, what might happen -- enables people to choose. Once the possibilities are identified, we can try to make the desired possibilities become realities and prevent the undesired possibilities from ever being realized."

With that said, people such as Molitor, who is vice president of WFS, assert that precise methods, carefully developed and intelligently used, can forecast what course a field or innovation or problem will take and approximate when that course will occur. Molitor has spent his professional career analyzing global indicators and predicting for presidents and chief executive officers when a given government would be forced to rule on or regulate a particular public-policy issue.

Over the years, Molitor has come to believe that futures research can be accurate even with a very long-term perspective of 1,000 years. …